Hugh McNeil was the colonel of the 13th Pennsylvania Reserves, the famous Bucktails, during the Battle of South Mountain. His regiment would take part in the assault that would capture the Frosttown Gap before nightfall stopped Federal forces from capturing their main objective, Turner’s Gap. McNeil would survive the fighting on South Mountain only to lose his life in a sharp skirmish on the evening of September 16, just hours before the Battle of Antietam. The following account is in regards to an interesting story of marksmanship by Colonel McNeil that took place during the battle as told by a soldier in the regiment.
An Incident of Battle
Colonel Hugh McNeil, of the famous “Bucktail” regiment, who was killed at the Battle of Antietam, was one of the most accomplished officers in the Federal Service. A soldier relates an exploit of his at South Mountain, which is worth recording.
During the Battle of South Mountain, the rebels held a very strong position. They were posted in the mountain pass, and had infantry on the heights on every side. Our men were compelled to carry the place by storm. The position seemed impregnable; large craggy rocks protected the enemy on every side, while our men were exposed to a galling fire. A band of rebels occupied the ledge on the extreme right, as the colonel approached with a few of his men. The unseen force poured a volley upon them. McNeil, on the instant, gave the command: ‘Pour your fire upon those rocks.’ The Bucktails hesitated; it was not an order that they had been accustomed to receive; they had always picked their men. ‘Fire!’ thundered the colonel; ‘I tell you to fire at those rocks!’ The men obeyed. For some time an irregular fire was kept up; the Bucktails sheltering themselves as best they could behind rocks and trees. On a sudden, McNeil caught sight of two rebels peering through an opening in the works to get an aim. The eyes of the men followed their commander, and a half a dozen rifles were leveled in that direction. ‘Wait a minute,’ said the colonel, ‘I will try my hand. There is nothing like killing two birds with one stone.’
The two rebels were not in line, but one stood a little distance back of the other, while just in front of the foremost was a slanting rock. Colonel McNeil seized a rifle, raised it, glanced a moment along the polished barrel; a report followed, and both the rebels disappeared. At that moment a loud cheer a little distance beyond rent the air. ‘All is right now,’ cried the colonel,’ charge the rascals.’ The men sprang up among the rocks in an instant. The affrighted rebels turned to run, but encountered another body of the Bucktails, and were obliged to surrender. Everyone saw the object of the colonel’s order to fire at random among the rocks. He had sent the party around to their rear, and meant this to attract their attention. It was a perfect success.
The two rebels, by the opening in the ledge, were found there stiff and cold. Colonel McNeil’s bullet had struck the slanting rock in front of them, glanced, and passed through both their heads. There it lay beside them, flattened.
The Democratic press. (Eaton, Preble County, Ohio), 01 Jan. 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88077265/1863-01-01/ed-1/seq-1/>